“Tell dem, they don’t give us Davido, we scatter here,” the boy said to me.
All around, with Tafawa Balewa Square in a shambles, it was hard to see what else the ‘we’ he spoke for might scatter. But this exchange came later. In the beginning there was beauty and fun, and yes, peace.
Reminisce’s Daddy (featuring Davido) was the first song the crowd sang, with enthusiasm, at the Lagos carnival. TBS roared as I made to enter its bowels hours late, sometime around 5pm.
At first my height counted for nothing, dwarfed as I was by average height folk standing on plastic chairs, on concrete platforms and sitting on other people’s shoulders. Eventually, I found a place from where the stage, high up and erected north of the bowl, could be seen. Barricade bound, the parades were coming to an end.
Banners with colourful images of women inscribed with ‘Lasgidi’ and the Lagos state crest hung at several points at the stands. First Bank and Maltina, sponsors, had banners aloft as well.
The party had begun hours ago. But no singer had performed yet. So, to introduce Oritsefemi, the compere shouted, “Lagos, are you ready?”
The response came back in cheers as the man with dyed hair came on. The crowd around me and to the left of the stage, with no security, sensed its opportunity and poured forth sweeping me along and trampling on the metal barricades. I had come late to the carnival but now, buoyed by the crowd, I stood not far from the stage.
Oritsefemi came onstage with two soon-to-be twerking women, announcing his arrival with a chant from an old hit:
“Mercies of the Lord come down…”
The crowd crowed back at him, ecstatic.
My own joy at being afore quickly went sour: in minutes the throng left the stands for the erstwhile unpopulated concrete field and predictably, bodies jostled for standing space while greedy ones aimed for ringside ‘seats’, sweeping people aside to make way; some others took the reverse route heading back out of the crowd. I remained; swept hither and thither according to the crowd’s boisterously erratic whim. Beads of forehead sweat wet my glasses, temporarily clouding my vision.
Oritsefemi halted the song for an acappella geography lesson as he listed areas in Lagos as he did on his hit song Double Wahala. The crowd, in spite of the no-beat novelty, very familiar with the man’s music, sang along:
“From Ikeja to Bariga,
From Bariga to Gbagada,
From Gbagada to Mowe,
Bi mose njaiye mi, kokan aiye…”
From DJ Jimmy Jatt’s Stylee to Jazzman Olofin’s Eko Ile to Mode 9’s Lagos State of Mind, contemporary Nigerian artists have tried to affix an anthem to the streets of Lagos—some song fully encompassing the city’s bustle, the city’s contradictions, the city’s spirit; some Lagos equivalent of Sinatra’s New York, New York. Buoyed by Tuface’s reminiscences and Mode 9’s impressions, Jimmy Jatt’s Stylee is arguably the most successful Lagos anthem. Double Wahala belongs there as well and maybe well eclipse Stylee sung as it is in a language and voice easily identifiable as Nigerian, as Lagosian.
Everything about the song is undoubtedly Lagosian, from Oritsefemi’s goofy steps and the song’s lilting chorus to the colourfully adorned women in the video (all inspired by Fela).
The artiste’s voice, unschooled in the art of accents, bred far from the highbrow, adds authenticity. And it was this voice, so conspicuously one of theirs, that roused the crowd to sing along syllable after heavy syllable: “Ikeja to Bariga…to Gbagada.”
The crowd rejoiced.
The rejoicing halted for Governor Fashola’s speech.
“Make some noise if you know you want to party!”
In any other context, this would have been inappropriate language for a governor, but here the crowd lapped it up even as some groaned; the governor, popular and well liked as he is, was interrupting their music with his talk.
In a speech no one was really listening to, the governor mentioned something about the ‘spirit of coexistence’ in Lagos; and immediately bodies fell toward me. A group of people were beating a path way through the crowd; in or out, I couldn’t tell, but the violent jostling offstage looked like an apt metaphor for the distance between the leading and the led, politicians and the working class: speaking from on high, sequestered away from the populace, the governor mouthed peace when all around us was trouble and bustling.
The questions formed of their own accord, growing muscle with each passing second. How can anyone from that distance, that height, tell the throng its problems and proffer a panacea for what he couldn’t feel? And if one of us here was lifted to that height by a strange mechanism, would he recall the feel of his compatriot’s breath on his neck? In that rarefied air, would not amnesia set in, banishing into a multi-layered grave the memory of stray halitosis?
As the microphone amplified the governor’s voice, his alienation from the crowd’s plight seemed to expand. And even though elitist alienation is inevitable, he was in a shade under a tarpaulin tent and speaking of harmony while beneath him the citizens were leading pushy, hustling lives.
What Fashola in his amiable, dutiful cluelessness could never come to represent was what Oritsefemi, for whom the crowd grew impatient by the second embodied: one of their own; whose ship of musical success had made port.
So as Fashola finished and Oritsefemi returned, his audience responded with ‘ororororo!’ to the musician’s signature chant, ‘arararara!’ Another trope from the Fela Kuti clan.
The singer performed another song and got the crowd into a Yoruba-ic frenzy. It appeared I was the only person without a printout of the song’s lyrics under my pillow. Mercifully, he repeated my familiar Double Wahala—performing Double Wahala doubly was apt—then went off stage.
Later I’d see that his song was prophetic: the double (performance) had happened, the wahala would be visited shortly.
As he went offstage, someone came on to announce that the festival would be closing shortly. Grumbling coursed through the crowd like the first symptoms of a rising fever; the initial intimations of violence. Speaking in Yoruba, the announcer, responding to audible but, considering what was to happen later, subdued demands, said “Davido is not here.”
The crowd screamed: “Olamide nko?”
The fever was now an epidemic as grumbling became screams that turned objects into missiles rocketing through the Lagos Island air.
The announcer again, an old man braving missiles and the crowd’s discontent, said in Yoruba: “Eni suru, Lagos doesn’t behave like this.”
A clear fib, because everyone knows Lagos didn’t take a placid route to becoming the ‘Centre of Excellence’.
Moreover his supplication, rendered in an apparently bewildered voice, failed to convince his audience.
Someone, it seemed amongst the organizers thought damage control in the circumstance meant sending an unknown to perform with the obligatory female dancer. The Emcee did his bit, introducing him like a match announcer would a prestigious prizefighter and for a while the crowd went silent examining the novelty as a cat would a mauled mouse, poking here and there for signs of life, of melody, while still showing a general displeasure in the form of identifiable flying objects: shoes, sandals, bottles, cans, sodas.
Sadly, Ali, he wasn’t. Tyson, he wasn’t, and devastatingly, he wasn’t Davido. The crowd discovering that he added lightweight to his obscurity began aiming for him directly.
In the heat of the missile attack, the man grabbed the quavering buttocks of his dancer. Whether this was for consolation, a misplaced hug in escape from the hostile reception, or if he turned to primal need in the face of rejection wasn’t clear. Embarrassed people do strange things. And as he pranced nervously about on stage, his record overpowering whatever voice he had, I had the feeling he was hoping his song was less than 4 minutes. Already his dance was out of step with the beat and in time, with the direction of aimed projectiles. The Lagos crowd, it must be said, has no time to boo in open spaces: Their reaction is often more visceral than vocal, expressed with missiles hurled into space to find its target.
The DJ helpfully ended the unnamed man’s nightmare; then introduced the hip hop song “Bugatti.” The first few lines ending with the resounding “I woke up in a new Bugatti!” pacified then lost the crowd with its verses leaving the DJ to display a common sense he’ll later forsake: He played Davido’s Aye.
That song, a huge hit, may be what Davido will be remembered for; based on, at the minimum, what it means to young Nigerian men, capturing perhaps their yearning for a relationship; companionship, sex but without material trappings. It is also bound to lead an impressionable kid into chasing an idea in vain, not realising the girl in the song is less ontic than exotic:
“She no want designer
She no want Ferrari
She say na my love o…”
A dream always, but a man can hope. Also the varnished reality of those lines lend themselves to parody—a rather backhanded promotion unprovoked directly by an artiste. And a comedian has obliged, mocking and yet giving the original, a comic layer hitherto unknown to Davido’s one-dimensional music. Of course it helps that the song is highlife, a sure-fire method of attracting the older generation. Aye’s formula—because though sublime, formula it is—is win win win.
The crowd, swayed and won over, swayed and sang along. And then, curses of curses, the music abruptly stopped.
Just as abruptly the crowd resumed its pelting of stage and tarpaulin tent. Whose shoes were shooting though the air? Were people that angry as to not mind the prospect of walking home barefoot? Or were people removing shoes off their neighbours, divesting others for the collective good? Frustration soon succeeded irritation leading people to TBS’s exits.
Onstage, wardens, (clearly not bouncers from the skinny arms on parade) moved expensive equipment from damage. One pure water sachet sprung straight unto the apex of the tent, merely metres from the coloured lights, exploding upon climax, and spraying the stage. One foot of a female sandal, a flimsy thing with thin straps sailed unto stage; its companion soon followed. A warden stared with open mouthed incredulity having barely escaped bodily harm by a flying object. Where were these guys during sporting events? They were throwing empty La Casera bottles , water sachets, Seven-up plastic bottles; objects with dubious buoyancies hurled through tens of metres and generally hitting target.
The situation quickly degenerated. A section of the crowd moved behind the stage, trashing objects. Near them, a bald suited up bodyguard, for defence more than offense, swung a pole this way and that, defiant and daring anyone to come near. The mob obliged him; and he soon disappeared buried under layers of the mob. Next time I saw him, he was heading onstage supported by 4 men, walking either dazed or fuming: it was difficult to tell at a distance.
Another guy adopted a melodramatic pose, crossing his hands and alternately kneeling and standing, onstage. Giving the rather violent drama on the premises, it was perhaps unsurprising melodrama called out to drama with the pose effective enough for the man to withdraw a cigarette pack and share a stick with a member of the mob. The stick, now lit, returned to him to quicken the inert one between his lips. He stood up doing the calm down mime, while anarchy prevailed behind the tent.
“Tell dem, they don’t give us Davido, we scatter here,” a teen-age boy told me. His partner, another teenager, told me they were promised at least 3 performers—not including the unknown musician whose presence, or obscurity, seemed to anger and confound the boys as they spoke.
“But did they say Davido was coming?”
“As we were entering…. Tell them, put it in your report.”
The mob wasn’t a mindless mass of uneducated young men. These boys were reasonably well spoken. They left me, looking to be headed home. Or who knows?– for more trashings.
A police officer threatened and ran after someone. A mistake. The chased person slipped but so did the officer as he made to grab him. The crowd then surrounded the policeman. He fought valiantly, got up and chased someone else toward stage. He didn’t get far before he received a nasty whack to the head, a sizeable stick felling him. He got up again, a groggy but living and breathing testament to the human skull’s formidable composition. Later he came up to meet the melodramatic crosser of hands—name Ebi Okojie, self-acclaimed street boy and show promoter—as I tried to interview the latter. He seemed to be accusing Mr Okojie of exacerbating his plight. His black police trousers were torn revealing a bloody gash on his shin about as wide as a baby’s palm, his arm badly scratched. His skull, as far as I could tell, was intact.
The program had one more item: fireworks. As the first few exploded in the darkening sky, the sound and wonder forced an intermission to the violence below. A test run, it was too brief to stop the onslaught. A sound not unlike a gunshot then dispersed the crowd.
It was now 6:40pm; 30mins prior the crowd was swaying, now the barricades were down and much trampled on. TBS looked like it had been nuked with debris. A few perps were caught, asked to sit on the concrete ground but they may not have been guilty. In a mob everybody is innocent, only the mass is guilty. Some officer standing over the caught culprits barked at a man using a camera to stop filming or he’d break his equipment.
Security is provided around TBS, the carnival’s website had said. But perhaps the state government left out security inside. Or maybe there was really just one way of assuaging the crowd: give them Davido.
A DMT Truck, with Otunba Gadaffi’s famous quote, ‘Shit Business is Serious Business’ painted on, moved over colourful costumes now discarded on the floor, leaving a brownish streak. The result looked cannily like faeces on red, blue, yellow paraphernalia. A metaphor rose of its own idiom: faeces on a festival. Or perhaps a shitty show?
The police was now everywhere, on foot, in cars, in vans, sitting, standing; all idle. Like those old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, the cops had arrived after all of the action.
An officer vengefully kicked a tall boy who wanted to take some of the discarded costumes. The boy had met me first:
“Sir, can I take this thing?”
“I don’t know.” Then, “Yes.” It was lying unused anyhow.
The boy wasn’t satisfied and in any case I was without the authority of a uniform. So he moved towards a youngish officer.
“Sir, can I take this…”
The response was fierce. The officer’s youth merely concealed his rage. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Get out! Get out!”
The boy and his shorter sidekick, heads hung low, moved toward the exit, as respectfully as they had been asked. The officer was not satisfied; their innocence must have been ingratiating and galling for a member of an organisation paid to manhandle the guilty. So he stamped on the boy’s butt, pushing him away, protected from retaliation by law, uniform and facelessness. Somehow, the police never helps the forces’ image.
By now different security uniforms adorned TBS: black, blue, brown, camouflage, bullet-proofed. I introduced myself to an officer who immediately he noticed my pad demanded that I do not record him and pointed me in the direction of a tall, lanky man surrounded by camouflaged officers. Protect my job, he said, that’s the assistant commissioner.
When I reached the Assistant Commissioner he was talking on a huge phone. I waited and as he dropped I greeted him. He ignored me and whipped out another phone. He pushed buttons, ignored me some more and danced around in a haphazard semi-circle until he hopped onto a police bike. Without a word, he left.
It was now 7o’clock and the promised fireworks had begun. For ten minutes, the skies above fulminated into many colours and sounds, celebratory like a few hours before; yet in between and afterwards, the sky emptied, desolate streaks of smoke descending as forlorn as the dishevelled TBS grounds beneath.
Was this a carnival? Have I been blind?
From what was left at the end, it may have been a funeral.